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Essential Cat Vaccinations

Essential Cat Vaccinations

Thanks to advances in pet health care and vaccinations, cats are able to live long, healthy lives these days. Even though there is not a vaccine available for every infectious disease a cat may come across, there are effective vaccines available for the most common infections of cats.

Part of keeping your cat healthy includes making sure they are up to date on all of their vaccines.

We will discuss each of the essential cat vaccinations below, along with concerns for vaccine reactions and if your elderly cat still needs vaccines.

Rabies

Every cat should be kept up to date on their rabies vaccine because of the threat to public health since rabies can be transmitted to people and is very deadly. Most places even require it by law to prevent the re-emergence of rabies.

Rabies is still prevalent in other countries, and there were even 241 cats in the U.S. that tested positive for rabies in 2018.

Rabies Vaccine Options:  1-year or 3-year

Rabies vaccines for cats come in two different options for frequency of administration. If your vet gives your cat a 1-year vaccine, they will need it boostered every year. If they give your cat a 3-year vaccine, it can be boostered every 3 years.

That being said, if your cat comes into contact with a wild animal, such as a bat, fox, raccoon, or skunk, you will need to get your cat’s rabies vaccine updated right away, even if they are considered up-to-date on their rabies vaccine.

This is to protect them with an extra boost of antibodies in their body just in case the wild animal had rabies. Don’t worry, it should not hurt your cat to have an extra dose of the rabies vaccine.

Typical Rabies Vaccine Schedule:

First Vaccine

At Least 12 Weeks of Age

Second Vaccine

At 1 Year of Age

Subsequent Vaccines

Yearly, or Every 3 Years


Rabies vaccines do need to be given by a licensed and accredited veterinarian to be considered legal. So, to get your cat’s vaccine, you will need to make an appointment with their veterinarian.

Vaccine Reaction Concerns

There are newer vaccines available for cats these days that are very safe. It is very rare for a cat to have a reaction to them. They are called “recombinant vaccines”. Most veterinary clinics have these in stock to use specifically for cats.

Vaccine-Associated Tumors:

Before recombinant vaccines were available, a few cats developed tumors in the area of their rabies vaccination site.

It was determined these tumors were likely caused by an over-reaction of the cats’ immune system to the vaccine. Thankfully, with the new vaccines available, these vaccine-associated tumors are even more rare than they were before.

Systemic Vaccine Reactions:

Generally speaking, most cats do just fine with vaccines. However, there are some cats whose body may react to vaccines differently and they could have what we call a negative vaccine reaction.

Signs of a vaccine reaction include one or multiple of the following within 24 hours of being vaccinated:

  • Extreme lethargy (it is normal for your cat to be more tired than usual after a vaccine)
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Hives
  • Swelling at site of injection

If you notice any of these within 24 hours after your cat was vaccinated, you should call your veterinarian’s office and immediately schedule an appointment. Even though vaccine reactions are rare, if they do happen they can be life-threatening.

If it is determined that your cat did in fact have a vaccine reaction, your vet may recommend some changes to their vaccine protocol. If your cat had a mild reaction that was self-limiting, your vet may recommend pre-dosing your cat with either an antihistamine or a steroid shortly before they give your cat a vaccine again.

If your cat had a severe reaction, your vet may actually recommend to not ever vaccinate your cat again.

Your vet can provide you with an official letter stating that your cat cannot receive vaccines due to a medical condition.

Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis

Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis is the fancy term for “Feline Herpes Virus”. Herpes Virus is very common and contagious in the cat population. It is similar to the human herpes virus, in that once a cat has it they usually have it for life.

Cats with an active infection of Feline Herpes Virus will have sneezing, congestion, nasal discharge, watery eyes, and general malaise. In its most severe forms, it can cause ulcers to develop on your cat’s eyes, potentially leading to loss of eyesight.

This vaccine does not necessarily prevent your cat from getting Feline Herpes Virus, but it does help make their symptoms much less severe when they do get it.

Their sickness will often be self-limiting as they can get over it on their own if they have been vaccinated. However, they will likely have flare-ups throughout their life if they go through a stressful period, or get sick due to something else.

Typical Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis Vaccine Schedule:

First Vaccine

At 6-8 weeks of age

Second Vaccine (booster)

At 10-12 weeks of age

Third Vaccine (booster)

At 14-16 weeks of age

Fourth Vaccine (booster)

At 1 year of age

Subsequent Vaccines

Every 3 years


If you acquire your cat as an adult cat and are not sure of their vaccine history, your cat will need to receive two doses of this vaccine, given 2-4 weeks apart. Then, your cat will receive it one year later and then every 3 years going forward.

This vaccine is included in what is often referred to as the “feline distemper vaccine”. It is a combination vaccine that includes protection against Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, along with a few of the other vaccines we will discuss below – Calicivirus and Panleukopenia Virus.

The abbreviation for this combination vaccine is FVRCP (each letter represents the first letter of each of the virus or bacteria’s names that it protects against).

As your cat gets older, your veterinarian may recommend discontinuing this vaccine if your cat has been up to date on it their entire life. This is because your cat just may not need it anymore and to decrease the stress put upon your cat’s body as they age.

Calicivirus

The Calicivirus vaccine is included in the FVRCP vaccine that was mentioned earlier. Calicivirus is a very contagious virus that also causes upper respiratory symptoms in cats. It can also cause painful oral ulcers that make it difficult for cats to eat.

Just like the Feline Herpes Virus vaccine, the Calicivirus vaccine will help to dampen the clinical signs and symptoms your cat may develop if they get exposed to Calicivirus.

Typical Calicivirus Vaccine Schedule:

First Vaccine

At 6-8 weeks of age

Second Vaccine (booster)

At 10-12 weeks of age

Third Vaccine (booster)

At 14-16 weeks of age

Fourth Vaccine (booster)

At 1 year of age

Subsequent Vaccines

Every 3 years


If you acquire your cat as an adult cat, they will need to receive 2 doses of the vaccine, each given 2-4 weeks apart. Then, your cat will need it boostered again one year later. Afterwards, it can be given every 3 years.

Panleukopenia Virus

Feline Panleukopenia Virus is a highly contagious, viral disease of cats that can be deadly. It is basically everywhere in the environment and kittens are most susceptible to it.

It causes severe diarrhea and intestinal disturbances, vomiting, lethargy, fever, and dehydration. It used to be one of the leading causes of death in cats. Not anymore, though, thanks to the availability of a vaccine to protect cats against it.

The Panleukopenia vaccine is included in the combination FVRCP vaccine.

Typical Panleukopenia Vaccine Schedule:

First Vaccine

At 6-8 weeks of age

Second Vaccine (booster)

At 10-12 weeks of age

Third Vaccine (booster)

At 14-16 weeks of age

Fourth Vaccine (booster)

At 1 year of age

Subsequent Vaccines

Every 3 years


If you acquire your cat as an adult cat and are not sure of their vaccine history, your cat will need to receive two doses of this vaccine, given 2-4 weeks apart. Then, your cat will receive it one year later and then every 3 years going forward.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia (Chlamydophila) is a bacterial infection that is contagious cat to cat. It causes eye drainage, conjunctivitis (swollen eyes), and upper respiratory problems such as nasal discharge and sneezing.

Cats can acquire it by being in close contact with one another and it tends to affect kittens worse than adult cats. Antibiotics can treat it, but prevention with the vaccine is always best.

This particular vaccine is not always included in the combination vaccine. Many clinics do carry the combination vaccine that includes protection against Chlamydophila, but not all.

If your veterinarian’s combination vaccine does include protection against this agent, it will be abbreviated FVRCPC (an extra “C” to indicate Chlamydophila).

Typical Chlamydophila Vaccine Schedule:

First Vaccine

At 6-8 weeks of age

Second Vaccine (booster)

At 10-12 weeks of age

Third Vaccine (booster)

At 14-16 weeks of age

Fourth Vaccine (booster)

At 1 year of age

Subsequent Vaccines

Every 3 years


If you acquire your cat as an adult cat and are not sure of their vaccine history, your cat will need to receive two doses of this vaccine, given 2-4 weeks apart. Then, your cat will receive it one year later and then every 3 years going forward.

Feline Leukemia Virus

Feline Leukemia Virus is another contagious disease of cats. There is no cure for it. Some cats that get infected with it live out the entirety of their lives without any problems.

Other cats that get infected with it are not so lucky. They can be more susceptible to other infections, develop seizures, become very anemic, develop certain types of cancers, and have shortened lifespans.

It is often referred to as “the lover’s disease” because it is transmitted amongst cats through grooming, licking, affection, and sharing food and water bowls. Cats most at risk for it are those who go outside and are exposed to other, stray cats.

Kittens can get it from their mother, so it is recommended that every kitten be tested for it when they are around 6-8 weeks of age. It is also recommended to test any cat if their history is not known or if they are brought in from the outside.

Typical Feline Leukemia Virus Vaccine Schedule:

First Vaccine

At 9 weeks of age

Second Vaccine (booster)

At 12-13 weeks of age

Third Vaccine (booster)

At 1 year of age

Subsequent Vaccines

Yearly, or Every 2 Years

 

If your cat is at a low risk of contracting Feline Leukemia Virus (they are indoor only and not exposed to other cats), you can discuss with your veterinarian about discontinuing this vaccine after they get their kitten boosters.

If your cat is at low risk of contracting Feline Leukemia Virus, but you want to be on the safe side, they can be given the vaccine every 2 years.

If your cat is at moderate to high risk of contracting Feline Leukemia Virus (they regularly go outside), you should continue giving your cat the vaccine every year, unless your veterinarian suggests every 2 years is sufficient.

FAQ

Should my pregnant cat be given vaccines?

No. Pregnant cats should not be given vaccines, as the vaccines could affect the development of the kittens.

It is ideal for your cat to receive all of their vaccinations prior to becoming pregnant so that they have the proper antibodies to pass to the kittens through the placenta and once they are born and nursing. This is the best way to protect the kittens in those first few crucial weeks of life.

If my cat is indoors-only, do they still need vaccines?

Indoor-only cats should still be kept up to date on their rabies vaccine. Not only is this required by law, but there is always a risk for your cat to get out accidentally or for a bat to sneak inside the house. If your cat sees a bat and tries to play with it or kill it, they are at risk of getting rabies.

Indoor-only cats should continue to receive their FVRCPC vaccine every 3 years until their personal veterinarian recommends to discontinue it. If your cat develops a chronic health condition, cancer, or just starts to become elderly, your vet may stop recommending this vaccine for your cat.

If your cat is truly indoors only and not exposed to other cats, they do not need to continue receiving the Feline Leukemia Vaccine.

How are cat vaccines given?

Vaccines are given in the form of an injection with a syringe and very small needle. Your vet will give the injection underneath your cat’s skin in what is called the “subcutaneous tissues”. They will usually try to give the vaccines under the skin in the back legs or front legs, and sometimes in the hip or shoulder area.

What if my cat is terrified of the vet or I can’t get them into a carrier?

Many cats truly despise going to the vet, or really even leaving their home. Check with your veterinarian and see if ether they can come to your home to vaccinate your cat.

If they do not offer that service, check and see if there is another veterinarian in your area that does house calls. These are becoming more common and some cats do much better receiving their vaccines in the comfort of their home.

If having a vet come to your home does not work out, your vet can also prescribe your cat special medications that you can give to them a few hours before the appointment to take the edge off and make them a little easier to handle.

These medications are safe for your cat and can work wonders on getting your cat into the clinic and having your cat allow your vet to give them their vaccines.

 

Conclusion

The three essential cat vaccines can protect your cat against deadly infections, and help them to live long, healthy lives. These include the Rabies Vaccine, the Feline Leukemia Vaccine, and the FVRCPC Vaccine (Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia, Chlamydophila).

Vaccines have been improved upon over the years to decrease the chance of your cat developing a vaccine reaction. However, if your cat does develop a vaccine reaction, your vet can work with you to prevent it from happening again, keeping the health of your individual cat as top priority.

 

Sources

Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2018: https://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/full/10.2460/javma.256.2.195



Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩‍⚕️
Veterinarian